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Joint Workshop 2018: Causality or Contingency: What Keeps Culture Going?

Workshop 2018

Workshop 2018

July 24 - 25, 2018 | Freie Universitaet Berlin, Seminarzentrum, Room L115, Habelschwerdter Allee 45, 14195 Berlin

In contrast to the natural world, the cultural world is characterized by rapid change. In terms of genetics, our species seems to be more or less identical to what it has been during the last 100.000 or even 150.000 years. In terms of culture, there has not only been a tremendous evolution during this period; the evolution has also produced a fascinating differentiation of cultural phenomena. The one language of the primordial tribe whose matriarch was named “Lucy” by 20th century natural sciences, e.g., has evolved in a myriad variety of vernaculars; the same applies for other fields of cultural production: regardless of the fact that the “hardware” (the human body and its basic capacities) is more or less the same everywhere and in any time, the items produced by this identical hardware differ in an amazing fashion. Modern anthropology has taught us to be cautious regarding the category of “anthropological constants”. Even if we elevate the level of abstraction in order to evaluate “superficial” differences, there are uncontestable differences between dissimilar cultures.
Since the eighteenth century (Montesquieu, Herder), there have been attempts at accommodating the uncontestable diversity of human culture to the ruling pattern of causal explanation. But linking diversity to items like climate or topography does not answer the question for why it is that a cultural community evolving in a hot maritime climate, e.g. in southern China, is visibly different from other cultural communities living under the condition of a hot maritime climate, as, e.g., in present-day Brazil or in coastal sub-Saharan Africa. The category of “race” created in the late eighteenth century in order to cope with this problem has proven its unsuitability. In principle, humans belonging to different “races” are fully able to produce comparable or even identical cultural items in case they are exposed to a cultural environment differing from the one where most of the members of their “tribe” are living.
Is it, therefore, indicated to abandon the category of causality if talking about culture and cultural developments? Do the items of the cultural sphere mainly consist of random agglomerations of previously existing cultural material? Or is the reference to the category of contingency nothing else that the attempt at avoiding the hard labor possibly going along with a fresh reflection on the relation between causality and contingency in the cultural sphere? May it be worth the effort to try devising new logical categories integrating the basic features of causality and contingency (evolutions accessible to human reasons and evolutions not accessible to our reason)?
The methodological questions outlined above are of interest for the entire range of humanistic disciplines. In addition, one might also raise the question to what extent the preoccupation with causal explanations is a culturally specific attitude; is it a “western” obsession? And if so, or even partly so, what are the logical categories non-western traditions may offer in order to engage in a meaningful conversation regarding our common cultural past and present?

During the Joint Workshop renowned humanities scholars from all partner universities presented new research topics — while enjoying the possibility of discussing these in detail, and of further developing them conjointly. Particularly this workshop served all participating scholars as an incubator for novel (research) initiatives and other forms of collaboration.


Tuesday, July 24
Freie Universität Berlin, “Rostlaube”, Seminarzentrum, Room L115, Habelschwerdter Allee 45, 14195 Berlin

9:30-10:00 a.m.  


10:00-11:30 a.m.  

CHAIR Benajmin Robbins (FUB)

LECTURE Kwok-kan Tam (CUHK): Causality in Culture and Literature

11:30-1:00 p.m.    

CHAIR Xiaofei Liu (CUHK)
LECTURE Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann (FUB): Event, Time, Narrative. A Philosophico-Historical Examination

1:00-2:00 p.m.

Lunch Break

2:00-3:30 p.m.    

CHAIR Sumayya Kassamali (Harvard)
Alexander Cook (ANU): Nature, Culture and the Ends of History: A (French) Revolutionary Debate

3:30-4:00 p.m.

Coffee Break

4:00-5:30 p.m.

CHAIR Tufan Acil (FUB)
LECTURE Heghnar Watenpaugh (UC Davis): Survivor Objects: Cultural Heritage after Genocide

Wednesday, July 25
Freie Universität Berlin, “Rostlaube”, Seminarzentrum, Room L115, Habelschwerdter Allee 45, 14195 Berlin

10:30-12:00 a.m.   

CHAIR DS Mayfield (FUB)
LECTURE Anne Eakin Moss (JHU): Eisenstein and Virtual Reality

12:00-1:30 p.m.

Lunch Break

1:30-3:00 p.m.     CHAIR Elizabeth Bonapfel (FUB)
LECTURE Mary Sherman (Boston College): Causality, Contingency or How the Arts Come to be Suspect (Followed by a Brief, Cautionary Tale)
3:00-3:30 p.m. Coffee Break
3:30-5:00 p.m.    

CHAIR Gautam Chakrabarti (FUB/LMU)
LECTURE Iris Roebling-Grau (FUB): Concerning the Evolution of Realism as a Cultural Paradigm in European Literature

5:00-5:45 p.m.

Concluding Discussion

Please find the program for download here.